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Niger coup draws condemnation from Russia and the West as regional body threatens force

Balima Boureima/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
  • The U.S. and France, which have troops stationed in Niger, have called for calm but strongly condemned the coup, along with much of the international community.
  • Thousands of Nigeriens took to the streets on Sunday in support of the coup, many carrying Russian flags and chanting pro-Putin messages.

LONDON — West African leaders on Sunday threatened military action against the junta that seized power last week in a coup in Niger, as protesters carrying Russian flags stormed the French embassy in capital city Niamey.

The military junta, now calling itself the National Council for the Safeguarding of the Fatherland, announced on Wednesday that it had captured democratically-elected President Mohamed Bazoum and removed his government from power, citing national security and corruption.

The coup is led by General Abdourahmane Tchiani, the commander of the presidential guard and a close ally of Bazoum's predecessor, Mahamadou Issoufou.

The U.S. and France, which have troops stationed in Niger, called for calm, but strongly condemned the coup, along with much of the international community. Bazoum took office two years ago in the country's first peaceful democratic transfer of power since gaining independence from France in 1960.

He has been able to speak with international leaders and on Monday met with Chad's President Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno at the presidential palace as part of Déby's mediation mission to the capital on behalf of ECOWAS, in which he also met with the coup leaders.

Thousands of Nigeriens took to the streets on Sunday in support of the coup, with many carrying Russian flags and chanting pro-Putin messages. Images purporting to be from the scene, which CNBC could not independently verify, showed fires outside the French embassy in Niamey, along with French flags being burned and projectiles thrown at the former colonial power's mission.

Moscow has joined appeals for Bazoum's immediate release, with Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov on Monday urging all sides to show restraint and return to order, according to Reuters.

On the other hand, Wagner Group mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, who took up arms against the Kremlin in June and whose private military organization has extensive interests in Africa, reportedly welcomed the coup in a recording posted to Telegram from a Wagner-affiliated group.

In the recording purporting to be of the Wagner leader, which has not been independently authenticated by CNBC, Prigozhin highlighted Wagner's proficiency in quashing unrest in the region.

A screen grab captured from a video shows the soldiers who appeared on national TV to announce the ouster of President Mohamed Bazoum in Niger, on July 27, 2023. Calling themselves the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (CLSP), they read a coup statement in a video they shot and broadcast on state television ORTN. 
Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
A screen grab captured from a video shows the soldiers who appeared on national TV to announce the ouster of President Mohamed Bazoum in Niger, on July 27, 2023. Calling themselves the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (CLSP), they read a coup statement in a video they shot and broadcast on state television ORTN. 

"Although there is no evidence that Niger's coup was plotted by Russia, the now infamous PMC Wagner Group will undoubtedly prioritise the country for its next deployment, given the highly strategic and symbolic position of Niger in the Sahel region," said Robert Besseling, CEO of Pangea-Risk.

"For France and the U.S., Niger is a key security partner in fighting Islamist militancy in the Sahel and Gulf of Guinea. For Europe, Niger has been a bulwark to control African migration flows, as well as an important source of uranium."

The West African regional body ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) imposed sanctions including border closures on Sunday. The 15-member coalition gave the military junta one week to return the elected government to power, vowing to take "all measures necessary to restore constitutional order" in Niger, including "the use of force."

The military junta in Niamey has so far rebuffed international calls. One of its leaders, Colonel Amadou Abdramane, claimed on state TV on Monday according to Reuters that the deposed government had authorized France to conduct strikes on the capital in order to free Bazoum, who remains confined in the presidential palace.

Paris has not expressed any desire for military intervention and the junta offered no evidence to support its claims. The French foreign ministry on Monday said that the only authority it recognizes in Niger is that of Bazoum, according to Reuters, implying that Paris would not have authorized strikes at the request of other government officials.

France, the EU and ECOWAS the big losers

The centering of former colonial power France in the crosshairs of military juntas is becoming a regular theme underpinning regional coups. Anti-French sentiment also formed the backdrop for governmental overthrows in neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso within the last two years.

French troops embarked on a decade-long deployment helping the respective governments repel Islamist insurgencies, but Paris faced resentment from large swathes of the countries' populations for perceived meddling.

Pro-Russian sentiment has meanwhile grown, and Wagner Group mercenaries have established presences in Mali, the Central African Republic, Libya and other troubled states.

François Conradie, lead political economist at Oxford Economics Africa, said the coup has likely succeeded and will eventually result in a power handover or in Bazoum's exile. This would make Niger the fourth ECOWAS country currently under military rule, alongside Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso.

"This is a nightmare for the regional body and its civilian leaders, who will certainly impose sanctions. We further expect that, in the same way as its neighbouring military governments, the CNSP will rapidly take an anti-France turn, and call on the French troops present in Niger to withdraw," Conradie said.

NIAMEY, Niger - July 30, 2023: A Nigerien policeman and army cadets look on as supporters rally in support of Niger's military junta. Thousands of people demonstrated in front of the French embassy in Niamey on Sunday.
AFP via Getty Images
NIAMEY, Niger - July 30, 2023: A Nigerien policeman and army cadets look on as supporters rally in support of Niger's military junta. Thousands of people demonstrated in front of the French embassy in Niamey on Sunday.

"There will be negative consequences for French business, including mining – which may have implications for French energy security, given its reliance on Nigerien uranium for nuclear power generation."

Should French troops withdraw as they did in Mali and Guinea, Conradie said the Nigerien army's ability to conduct counterinsurgency operations against jihadists on the Malian border will be depleted.

The coup has significant economic and commercial implications beyond France, since Niger is a major global uranium producer and accounts for around 25% of such deliveries to the European Union.

"This strategic importance could spell bad news for EU nuclear power if availability of uranium is suddenly reduced," said David Omojomolo, Africa economist at Capital Economics.

"Secondly, the coup is likely to heighten concerns about the displacement of communities in the Sahel region and wider security. This is the region's ninth coup in three years, and instability in the region has clear implications for West African neighbours."

A domestic issue?

Some analysts believe the coup was borne out of domestic tensions between elite military units and the government over pay and salary status, after General Tchiani and Bazoum long failed to see eye to eye.

Cameron Evers, senior analyst for Sub-Saharan Africa at Emergent Risk International, highlighted in a blogpost on Friday that there are few signs of any post-coup foreign policy, despite the concerns about Russian influence.

A general view of billowing smoke as supporters of the Nigerien defence and security forces attack the headquarters of the Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism (PNDS), the party of overthrown President Mohamed Bazoum, in Niamey on July 27, 2023. 
- | Afp | Getty Images
A general view of billowing smoke as supporters of the Nigerien defence and security forces attack the headquarters of the Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism (PNDS), the party of overthrown President Mohamed Bazoum, in Niamey on July 27, 2023. 

"Sensing that Russia has an opportunity to insert themselves here, the West may take a more gentle approach toward a post-coup regime, reminiscent of Cold War politics," Evers noted.

Niger's security situation vis-à-vis Islamist insurgencies is not as perilous as that in neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso, and Evers argued that it may not need to replace Western military support with Russian assistance.

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